A year of ranking Covid-19 resilience reveals virus' volatility

Countries have been stymied again and again by the vagaries of the biggest health crisis in a generation.
Countries have been stymied again and again by the vagaries of the biggest health crisis in a generation.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Having weighed indicators among 53 economies for a year now, Bloomberg's Covid-19 Resilience Ranking tracked the best and worst places to be in during the pandemic, combining data ranging from outbreak control to death tolls, vaccination campaigns to progress towards restarting travel.

Twelve months of the ranking have made one thing clear: Past performance is no guarantee of future success - or failure. Countries and cities have been stymied again and again by the vagaries of the biggest health crisis in a generation, but some have also found ways to turn devastating situations around, whether through science, social cohesion or simply learning from the past.

Since it debuted last November, the ranking's best and worst performers each month have fluctuated, with the onset of vaccines, the emergence of the Delta variant and the more recent push for reopening being key moments in the pandemic journey.

Initially, the top performers among the 53 economies ranked were those which deployed tough containment strategies, including quarantines and border curbs.

Then, places that were able to roll out vaccine shots the fastest came to the fore, with those that have been able to combine high vaccination levels with a normalisation of social and economic activity now scoring highest.

As more potential turning points loom - lockdowns are returning in some places and the advent of Covid-19 pills could neutralise the virus long term - Bloomberg scored a year's worth of Covid-19 resilience, zeroing in on the most consistent performers, who has done best on reverting to normal life and the ultimate indicator: Where deaths have been most effectively avoided.

The pandemic's volatile arc meant that no top performer sustained their success all year. New Zealand and Singapore, once No. 1 for walling out the virus and maintaining a level of pre-pandemic normalcy for most of 2020, saw their fortunes plunge as Delta infiltrated their Covid-19-zero fortresses, triggering renewed lockdowns and restrictions.

The United States - fleetingly No. 1 in June - and Israel, the fastest at rolling out vaccine shots and lifting curbs in the early months of 2021, were caught out when the virus flared again over the summer, particularly among the unvaccinated. The ranking's lower rungs fluctuated too: Countries like Mexico and Brazil were ranked lowest through early 2021 as the virus affected their populations, but Latin America has avoided the worst of Delta thanks to vaccination and a high level of natural immunity.

South-east Asian countries took over as the worst places to be in for the second half of the year as their inoculation roll-outs lagged, with resurgent outbreaks leaving their export-dependent economies reeling.

Amid the flux, a handful of places proved the most consistent. Most of them never reached No. 1 of the 53 economies ranked, but they never fell below 26th place, either.

These seven countries - Norway, Denmark, Finland, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, South Korea and Switzerland - are the closest the pandemic has to season MVPs: Whether rolling out vaccination, fighting Delta or reopening the economy, they always scored above average.

Strong healthcare safety nets and societal cohesion are common denominators among the seven, qualities that advantaged them at every stage of the pandemic. A faith in government and people's willingness to follow rules helped with containing the virus, while these countries' relative wealth meant they had the buying power to snap up the first supplies of vaccines.

At the other end, nine countries - Argentina, Iran, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Poland, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa - have never risen above the ranking's midpoint the past year. These places have been the most devastated by the pandemic, infections-wise, and many still struggle with limited access to vaccines.

In June, as vaccines proliferated in developed economies and governments started to lift restrictions, the ranking added two new data indicators to the original 10 to reflect the progress towards reopening and normalising economies: vaccinated travel routes and flight capacity.

The roll-out of shots has allowed many countries to resume aspects of pre-pandemic life, with fatality rates largely decoupling from infection curves, and Europe, North America and some parts of the Asia-Pacific now looking to live with the virus.

Places that accept Covid-19 is endemic, like influenza, are less likely to lock down or see people avoid public activities.

Over the past year, Community Mobility - a stalwart indicator of the ranking which tracks levels of movement to offices and retail spaces compared with a pre-pandemic baseline - has remained relatively steady in Greece, the US, the United Kingdom and Germany, with all four avoiding weekly activity drops of more than 10 per cent since the end of last year.

Similarly, their flight capacity has steadily recovered and the stringency of restrictions, particularly in the US and UK, is at a low level.

While all of these places continue to see waves of infection and some, like the US, are still seeing significant fatalities, the data shows that in these countries, people are no longer willing to endure disruption to their everyday lives and have largely lost their fear of the virus. For these economies, the pandemic is receding into the rear view - though winter will pose a test.

At the other end of the spectrum, mobility levels in places like Pakistan, South Korea, Japan, Chile and Israel have all dropped by 10 per cent or more over the past four months, as virus resurgences triggered restrictions on people's movements. New Zealand has seen six such activity drops in the past 12 months, reflecting a stop-start cycle of curbs that is exacting a growing toll.

While ongoing lockdowns have been associated with the "Covid-19-zero" approach that aims to eliminate the virus's spread, China and Hong Kong - the only places in the world still adhering to the strategy - have not seen domestic activity levels drop by more than 10 per cent since early 2021.

This does not capture international travel, which has been strictly curbed in both places, and in the case of China reflects its vast scale: lockdowns in some part of the country to wipe out Delta flare-ups only occasionally rise to the point where activity nationally is impacted.

Preventing death

Covid-19's lasting legacy is the more than five million lives that have been lost over the course of the pandemic, a toll that is widely viewed as likely undercounted. The blow has been unevenly distributed across the world, and has been largely tied to the effectiveness of containment strategies in the first year of the pandemic before vaccines became available.

Limited fatalities has been the standout success story of the Covid-19-zero approach, although the flip side has been a far slower reopening, particularly when it comes to travel.

On a per capita basis, China has the lowest Covid-19 mortality of the 53 places ranked, with just three deaths per million people. New Zealand - which still has a closed border, though it is moving towards opening - is second, with just eight fatalities per million. Other places that successfully eliminated and kept out Covid-19 in the first year such as Taiwan, South Korea and Australia have seen less than 100 deaths for every one million people.

At the other end, Peru has the worst death toll, with 6,093 dying from Covid-19 per million people. The US, which was particularly unsuccessful at containment, and European nations have seen fatalities of around 2,000 people for every million.

The northern-hemisphere winter may again reshuffle the ranking leader board as countries confront the first cold season with both vaccines and the more transmissible Delta. Already, European nations like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark are seeing fresh waves and some have imposed new lockdowns to slow the virus' spread.